One of the most pressing problems posed by J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year is that of the novel as a genre: what it is and is not, how readers “create” texts and their meanings, how literary tradition and genre typologies are constructed and passed down, the plasticity of narrative form, whether the pressure of historical precedent can be evaded, and so on. This essay is an attempt to say how Coetzee uses form, structure, and nonfiction polemic to rethink and redefine the traditional novel for a contemporary readership. In the process, I track Coetzee's engagement with the question of literary form over the past two decades (situating Diary within Coetzee's greater oeuvre), look at how the unusual layout of the book facilitates an interrogation of fiction writing that would otherwise be impossible, and highlight how the book's tiered construction figures as a way to think about how to live in an increasingly transnational and compressed global world. Ultimately, I aim to determine what this utterly new type of novel can and does say about literature, and from that to better understand Coetzee's thoughts on literature at this late stage in his career.

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